Some of the best hacks are the tools people make to help them complete a project. I last looked at quick tool hacks back in Hacklet 53. Hackers have been busy since then, and new projects have inspired new tools. This week on the Hacklet, I’m taking a look at some of the best new quick tool hacks on Hackaday.io.
We start with [rawe] and aquarium pump vacuum pickup tool. Tweezers work great for resistors and caps, but once you start trying to place chips and other large parts, things quickly become frustrating. Commercial machines use high dollar vacuum pickup devices to hold parts. [rawe] built his own version using a cheap Chinese hand pickup tool and an aquarium pump. With some pumps, switching from air to vacuum is easy. Not with [rawe’s] pump. He had to break out the rotary tool and epoxy to make things work. The end result was worth it, a vacuum pickup tool for less than 10 Euro.
Next we have [David Spinden] with ViaConnect Circuit Board Test Tool, his entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize. [David] wanted a spring loaded pin which could be used in .100 holes in printed circuit boards. He ended up using pins from one connector, shell from another, and packaging the whole thing up into a new tool. ViaConnect essentially makes any PCB as easy to use as a solderless breadboard. No headers required. This is great both for testing new designs and for the education sector.
Next up is our favorite quick tool hacker, [Alex Rich] with Improved Allen Wrench / Hex Key Holder. If [Alex] looks familiar, that’s because he’s the creator of the Stickvise. This time he’s come up with a new way to store and organize your Allen wrenches. Inspired by a similar device seen on a YouTube video from [Tom Lipton], [Alex] opened up his CAD software and started designing. The original used a steel spring to keep the wrenches in place. [Alex] switched the spring to a rubber o-ring. The o-ring securely holds the wrenches, but allows them to be easily pulled out for use. Of course the design is open source, so building your own is only a couple of hours of printing away!
Finally we have [Solarcycle] with Cordless Foam Cutting Tool – USB Rechargeable. Soldering irons make a lot of heat in a small area to melt metal. Foam cutters make heat in a larger area to cut Styrofoam. [Solarcycle] saw the relation and converted a Solderdoodle Pro cordless soldering iron into a banjo style hot wire foam cutter. A barrel connector converts the soldering iron tip output to two stiff wires. The stiff wires carry current to a 3 cm length of Kanthal iron-chromium-aluminium (FeCrAl) heating element wire. If you don’t have any Kanthal around, ask your local vape enthusiast – they have tons of it. The result is the perfect hand-held tool for carving and sculpting in foam. Just make sure to have lots of ventilation.
[S.PiC] has been working on a computer case styled to look like the Vulture mech from Battletech. We’re not sure if his serious faced cat approves or not, but we do.
The case is made from artfully cut plywood. We kind of hope he keeps the wood aesthetic. However, that would be getting dangerously close to steampunk. So perhaps a matching paint job at the end will do. In some of the videos we can how he’s cleverly incorporated the computer’s components into the design of the case. For example, the black mesh on the front actually hides the computer’s power supply intake fan.
The computer inside is a small micro-itx formfactor one. Added as peripherals to it [S.Pic] has pulled out the hacker-electronics-tricks bible. From hand soldered LED grids to repurposed Nokia LCD screens, he has it all. In one video we can even see the turret of the mech rotating under its own power.
It looks like the build still has a few more steps before completion, but it’s already impressive enough to be gladly worth the useful table space consumed on any hacker’s desk. Video after the break.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste – but an awesome thing to hack. We last visited brain hacks back in July of 2015. Things happen fast on Hackaday.io. Miss a couple of days, and you’ll miss a bunch of great new projects, including some awesome new biotech hacks. This week, we’re checking out some of the best new mind and brain hacks on Hackaday.io
We start with [Daniel Felipe Valencia V] and Brainmotic. Brainmotic is [Daniel’s] entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize. Smart homes and the Internet of Things are huge buzzwords these days. [Daniel’s] project aims to meld this technology with electroencephalogram (EEG). Your mind will be able to control your home. This would be great for anyone, but it’s especially important for the handicapped. Brainmotic’s interface is using the open hardware OpenBCI as the brain interface. [Daniel’s] software and hardware will create a bridge between this interface and the user’s home.
Next we have [Angeliki Beyko] with Serial / Wireless Brainwave Biofeedback. EEG used to be very expensive to implement. Things have gotten cheap enough that we now have brain controlled toys on the market. [Angeliki] is hacking these toys into useful biofeedback tools. These tools can be used to visualize, and even control the user’s state of mind. [Angeliki’s] weapon of choice is the MindFlex series of toys. With the help of a PunchThrouch LightBlue Bean she was able to get the EEG headsets talking on Bluetooth. A bit of fancy software on the PC side allows the brainwave signals relieved by the MindFlex to be interpreted as simple graphs. [Angeliki] even went on to create a Mind-Controlled Robotic Xylophone based on this project.
Next is [Stuart Longland] who hopes to protect brains with Improved Helmets. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is in the spotlight of medical technology these days. As bad as it may be, TBI is just one of several types of head and neck injuries one may sustain when in a bicycle or motorcycle accident. Technology exists to reduce injury, and is included with some new helmets. Many of these technologies, such as MIPS, are patented. [Stuart] is working to create a more accurate model of the head within the helmet, and the brain within the skull. From this data he intends to create a license free protection system which can be used with new helmets as well as retrofitted to existing hardware.
Finally we have [Tom Meehan], whose entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize is Train Your Brain with Neurofeedback. [Tom] is hoping to improve quality of life for people suffering from Epilepsy, Autism, ADHD, and other conditions with the use of neurofeedback. Like [Angeliki ] up above, [Tom] is hacking hardware from NeuroSky. In this case it’s the MindWave headset. [Tom’s] current goal is to pull data from the TAGM1 board inside the MindWave. Once he obtains EEG data, a Java application running on the PC side will allow him to display users EEG information. This is a brand new project with updates coming quickly – so it’s definitely one to watch!
If you watch a lot of TV just after Christmas, you will be familiar with partworks. Or at least, you will if you live in the part of the world this is being written from, and if you aren’t you should count yourself lucky. The premise is simple: buy this magazine once a month, and in each issue you will receive a fresh component which you can assemble over time into a beautiful model of a galleon, a Lancaster bomber, or a patchwork quilt.
The value for money offered by such publications is highly suspect, the quality of the finished item is questionable, and though the slick TV adverts make them sound alluring you’re much better off buying the Airfix model kit or just cutting your own patches.
There’s a partwork that caught our eye which may be worth a second look. It’s probably unfair on reflection to call it a partwork though as it doesn’t deserve to be associated with the scammier end of the publishing business. Swansea Hackspace are currently running a six-week all-inclusive course designed to introduce the participant to robotics through a step-by-step assembly of an Arduino based robot. Tickets were £60 ($85) to hackspace members, and all parts were included in that price.
At first sight it might seem a little odd to feature a course. It’s not a hack, you’ll say. And though the little Arduino robot is a neat piece of kit, you’d be right. It’s hardly ground-breaking. But the value here doesn’t lie in the robot itself, but in the course as an exercise in community engagement. If you are involved in the running of a hackspace perhaps you’ll understand, it can sometimes be very difficult to persuade timid visitors to come along more than once, or to join the space. Hackspaces can be intimidating places, after all.
The Swansea course holds the promise of addressing that issue, to say to an interested but non-expert newcomer that they needn’t worry; if they have an interest in robotics then here’s a way to learn. This community engagement and spreading of knowledge reveals an aspect of the hackspace movement that sometimes remains hidden, and it’s something we’d like to see more of in other spaces.
The more tools you have the better. Unfortunately, not everyone has the space, or the money for full-size equipment. Looking to expand his maker capabilities, [Bruno] had the clever idea to turn a hand-tool, into a power tool. One we’ve never even seen before — a powered hacksaw.
Using his 3D printer he designed a linkage system, not unlike a steam locomotive drive to turn rotary motion from a geared motor into linear motion. Not only that, it also angles the hacksaw as it goes. 3D printed brackets hold the hacksaw in place, and weight can be added to the top to adjust the cutting speed. He even 3D printed a guide for his vice to line up the material to where the blade will cut.
Bare feet, bare hands, and bare chest – if it weren’t for the cargo shorts and the brief sound of a plane overhead, we’d swear the video below was footage that slipped through a time warp. No Arduinos, no CNC or 3D anything, but if you doubt that our Stone Age ancestors were hackers, watch what [PrimitiveTechnology] goes through while building a tile-roofed hut with no modern tools.
The first thing we’ll point out is that [PrimitiveTechnology] is not attempting to be (pre-)historically accurate. He borrows technology from different epochs in human history for his build – tiled roofs didn’t show up until about 5,000 years ago, by which time his stone celt axe would have been obsolete. But the point of the primitive technology hobby is to build something without using any modern technology. If you need a fire, you use a fire bow; if you need an axe, shape a rock. And his 102 day build log details every step of the way. It’s fascinating to watch logs, mud, saplings, rocks and clay come together into a surprisingly cozy structure. Especially awesome if a bit anachronistic is the underfloor central heating system, which could turn the hut into a lovely sauna.
Software hackathons are an old hat these days. They’re a great scouting opportunity for talented candidates looking for a job, and they provide the battleground for coding enthusiasts to prove themselves by developing a project from start to finish overnight, albeit, with a few kinks. Hardware hackathons are an entirely different beast. By trading APIs for components and Python libraries for soldering irons, they pull the excitement out of the text editor and onto the workbench for everyone to see.
While hardware hackathons might be “the next big thing” with you and your four best DIY-pals, the broad range of physical components, from Arduinos to CNC milling time, makes rule-establishment, safety enforcement, and winning criteria far more difficult to constrain within a single night. Enter Muddhacks. This past October, three students from Harvey Mudd College set out to deliver a hardware hackathon that would open their student community’s mind to the thought of tinkering-for-fun in their spare time outside the lab and beyond their homework.
Students [Benjamin Chasnov], [Apoorva Sharma], and [Akhil Bagaria] had just finished their experimental engineering class: E80. Along the way, they designed a custom sensor payload into a meter-long rocket and launched both rocket and payload to measure the rocket’s fundamental frequencies in flight. With a victory behind them, they were ready for their next big project.
As the next semester waned onwards, however, they realized that any big project–no matter how modular–would be a serious time commitment. After some thought, they refactored their idea entirely. Tinkering was a passion shared by each of them; why not spread the love school-wide and bring together a community of engineers-by-night? To resolve their craving for after-hours engineering and to inspire a culture of collaborative tinkering, they set out to bootstrap a hardware hackathon; an event where many projects could be realized by many students in a single night.
Everyone Says Hardware is Hard
For the unitiated, hardware looks hard. Breadboards, LEDs, r`esistors? To those who have never put together a simple circuit before, taking that first leap is a challenge set by a box of components that almost seems to glare back menacingly. The three teammates took this first-timer roadblock as a challenge unto themselves to break down that barrier. Thus, HackWeek was born.
HackWeek was the MuddHacks teams’ answer to get students comfortable gluing modules together to produce a functional project in a short time. How do I make things move? How do I connect things to the internet? What parts do I choose? All of these questions-worth-answering became topics of the three-day event before the hackathon. The idea behind HackWeek was simple: give eager students enough theory and a functional demo that they could probe, tweak, and recompile so that they could feel more comfortable developing their own ideas into projects. On day one, the MuddHacks team brought functional demos of various motors into the hands of eager students. By day two, the three teammates actually assembled a functional hack of their own before the eyes of their listeners: an internet-enabled microwave that could remotely start warming up that cup of ramen on your way back from class.
Unlike software hackathons, a successful hardware hackathon involves parts, and the MuddHacks team was well-prepared to bring the participants the parts that they wanted. With ten days to go before the event, [Ben] took orders from each team’s desired list of parts. With a day to go, all parts arrived before the event and made it to their respective user’s hands in “goodie bags” on the last day of HackWeek. On this last day, teams opened their bags and explored the parts given to them and to other teams while taking advice from the mentors present to offer tips for using various components. This time for “open-exploration” ensured that the following night spent hacking would be more fruitful, now that teams had cleared the starting questions for various parts on the previous day.
On the night of MuddHacks, [Ben], [Apoorva], and [Akhil] had completely turned their original aim to build their own project into a night spent mentoring the projects of others. Throughout the night, they became the “ground crew,” bringing advice to debugging teams and keeping the night culture alive with two waves of snacks. “We felt that if students were going to come to our event, it was our responsibility to keep them both awake and happy,” Apoorva mentioned. Classrooms refilled for the night with students eager to bring their robots, LEDs, and gantries to life, but other parts of the school came to life as well. The machine shops reopened, and old oscilloscopes and test equipment emerged from the engineering stock room for loan to any teams that needed them. Even a few professors happened to wander into classrooms and offer advice.
For [Ben], [Apoorva], and [Akhil], fostering a sense of community in tinkering became their top priority. As they wandered between teams, they encouraged stellar performers to take a brief break and help out another team through a bug. At the night’s end, a number of early-rising professors joined the crowd of students to judge the winners. Oddly enough, the MuddHacks team didn’t spend any money on the prizes–but no one seemed to notice or care. For the eighth of the entire undergraduate student body that attended, these students weren’t coming for the prizes. They came to join that culture of tinkerers–to be a fellow hardware-hacker-by-night–eager to do their part to make the world blink.
When was the last time you burned yourself downloading someone else’s API? Probably never. With a hardware hackathon, comes a new wave of challenges not seen before in the software variant. With one successful hackathon under their belt, we asked the MuddHacks Team to share some insights for other teams looking to assemble their own hardware hackathon. Here’s what they came up with.
Charging participants an entrance fee may solve the problem of funding, but for the thrifty, starving student, entrance fees may also weed out people who had a slight curiosity but weren’t eager to throw a few bucks down to support it. The solution? Bring participants in for free and support the hackathon with external funding. The MuddHacks team reached out to a number of companies and encouraged them to take a sincere look at their website and cause.
The Muddhacks team handled most of their administrative work online. Among the tools they chose were
Google Forms for parts orders and feedback
Slack and email lists for real-time updates during the event
Google Spreadsheets for keeping track of order requests
Bootstrap for deploying a website
The Muddhacks team mandated that students form teams to enter the hackathon, mostly to foster community and collaboration. They reasoned: “If you already build things for fun on your own, you don’t need a hackathon to get you excited about hardware for the first time.” Most teams self-assembled, but the Muddhacks team also suggests a submission form for stragglers to pair up.
Ten days before the hackathon, [Ben] put out a call to order parts in a $100 budget range. Each team made part requests, and [Ben] then ordered each of these parts in time for the hackathon. In addition, the Muddhacks team also ordered a collection of additional stock hardware (think: Arduinos and shields).
Setting the Stage
The Muddhacks team received permission to host the night event on the third floor of one of their buildings filled with classrooms. Among points to consider for the setting are:
reliable Wi-Fi connectivity
power outlet access
Soldering irons and sleep-deprivation don’t mix well. Among the points to consider for safety are tools that will keep users safe (safetly glasses and ventilation in this case). The MuddHacks team also recommends a safety waiver.
Advertising and Swag
Getting people excited is key. Logos, T-shirts, and Mugs all add to the authenticity of the one-night event. The Muddhacks Team brought in each of these to its participants. In addition, they printed posters, deployed a website and facebook page, and pitched to students directly in their computer science and engineering classes.
Keeping the Night Moving
Feed the masses. The MuddHacks team reminds us that, as the hosts and organizers of the event, it’s your responsibility to make sure that attendees are both awake and enjoying their time. Not only did the team provide two rounds of food, they also walked around and engaged participants that needed some help debugging, effectively becoming an extra set of eyes to track down bugs as mentors throughout the night.
The MuddHacks team brought in their favorite professors to judge teams’ projects. At this event, the MuddHacks team stresses that all participants deserve to see all projects. Not only can they witness something awesome, they can also engage their peers with questions, effectively learning a few extra tricks that they didn’t discover while working on their own project.
Priming for Next Year
From the MuddHacks Team: “Take pictures!” While the first website and facebook page were filled with images of the tools and the setting, next years website and advertisements could be filled with pictorial proof of the promise to participants of a genuine experience. As the first hackathon closes, they also stress that you, the organizers and founders, learn too; and the best way to do so is to collect feedback with some manner of online form. At the same time, this form could also recruit additional hands for assembling next year’s hackathon.
We hope these tips from a stellar hackathon serve as a starting point for developing one of your own. To learn more about MuddHacks, take a quick visit to their website: MuddHacks.com, or follow them on their Facebook page.
This article was specifically written for the Hackaday Omnibus vol #02. Order your copy of this limited edition print version of Hackaday.